Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011: Hollywood's Star of Stars

Child actress, teen temptress, cinematic empress, Taylor helped define contemporary fame first by her beauty, then with her love life and finally with a multifaceted celebrity

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Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

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The Taylor-Burton liaison begat 10 films and a two-part TV movie in the years 1963-73; stars still worked hard then. It could be said of them, as it was true of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that "he gave her class, and she gave him sex." But it would be fair to note that Burton encouraged Taylor to display her talents in a wider span of genres and properties and that Taylor brought Burton's smoldering intelligence, the musk of his mind, to center screen after a decade of achievement onstage and in British films. He gave her freedom; she made him a star.

It was a gift that, at time, Burton must have thought was bondage, and it chafed him so. Yet it preserved, in fictional form, as accurate and coruscating a record of modern marriage as exists outside the Ingmar Bergman canon: the flaming of first forbidden love in Cleopatra; the verbal sparring in The Taming of the Shrew, alternately Tracy and Hepburn and Moe and Larry; the shared lies and binding compromises in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In a way, the stars and their films were splendid anachronisms by the late '60s. This was the era of gritty movies about the counterculture and the lower depths, the era of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. Serious dramas about the domestic disputes of the well fed and middle-aged were quickly becoming passé. Yet they proved they were true actors disguised as stars and convinced their huge audience that all these glamorous, embattled characters, especially Edward Albee's George and Martha, were themselves: "Liz" and "Dick," apotheosized from tabloids to tragedy.

The couple's letters, collected for the 2010 book Furious Love, were as passionate and ornate as any playwright's dialogue. "You must know, of course, how much I love you," wrote Burton in a fit of Welsh eloquence. "You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous, and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other ... we operate on alien wavelengths ... I love you and I always will. Come back to me as soon as you can. " Taylor expressed an erotic, all-American optimism when, at the time of their second marriage, in 1975, she writes, "Dearest Hubs, How about that! You really are my husband again, and I have news for thee, there bloody will be no more marriages — or divorces, either. Yours truly, Wife." That marriage lasted less than 10 months, though they would reunite on Broadway for a 1983 revival of Private Lives, the Noël Coward comedy about a divorced couple who fall in love again on their respective honeymoons with new partners. The thing was a disaster, with the aging icons slogging through the airy romance as if they were dragging Cleopatra's barge behind them.

There would be two more marriages: to Virginia Senator John Warner, for nearly six years, and to construction worker Larry Fortensky for five years, ending in 1996. Taylor moved from husband to lover (who would become her next husband) as she had from movie to movie when she was at MGM. Describing herself as a serial monogamist, she seemed to need companionship with a contract. In the 46½ years from her first "I do" to her final divorce, she was married for all but 13 of those years. She also knew that her fealty to any one man couldn't last. She might have been happier if she'd married McDowell — a lifelong friend, and perhaps the most caring permanent bachelor in Hollywood — and pursued affairs with a modicum of discretion. But Taylor had to live her private life in the public eye and show the world that Hollywood was a romantic melodrama, onscreen and off.

In the movies — a medium that loves youth and is ruthless to age — beautiful women have two choices: grow old out of the public's sight, as Greta Garbo did, or grow old in it. (There is a third: early death, which preserves the image at a steep price.) Taylor chose to ease out of films and into her noblest role as an AIDS humanitarian. Devastated by the 1985 death of Rock Hudson, her Giant co-star, she helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and over the next quarter-century, she raised perhaps $100 million for the cause. She remained a tireless champion through many illnesses: skin cancer, a (benign) brain tumor, injuries to her hips and back. "I get around now in a wheelchair," she said in 2005, "but I get around." The grand lady was also a game gal.

In her last decades, Taylor made films only as a visiting dignitary, vacationing from her good works, her incorrigible celebrity. In a 2001 TV movie, These Old Broads, she put salve on an old wound by co-starring with Debbie Reynolds. In an HBO film, the 1983 Between Friends, as a divorcée coping with loneliness, she mulls an aphorism: "Nothing lasts, do you notice that?" She was wrong about the violet eyes, and wrong again in this instance. Nothing lasts but the cinema, its reels still racing with invisible wings, and the world's fascination with Elizabeth Taylor.

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